It’s a scary world out there. Climate change, renewed fears of war in the Middle East, growing political instability across Europe … one can’t help but wonder what the future holds for our children.
One thing’s for sure – the next generation of adults will need all the resilience and adaptability they can muster.
‘Resilience and adaptability’ are also essential for the future workforce, according to Chris Brodie of Skills Development Scotland. The Head of Skills Planning and Sector Development was speaking at a Scottish Policy Conference in mid-June on ‘Meeting Scotland’s Skills Needs’. Two other words that cropped up frequently at that conference were ‘uncertainty’ and ‘change’, as experts discussed the challenges posed by the coming age of robotics and artificial intelligence.
According to Mr Brodie, Scotland now needs a workforce that can
- thrive in an environment of constant change
- make the best use of the emotional intelligence that makes us human
- innovate to keep the Scottish economy ahead of the field.
Here’s what he thinks underlies these human capacities:
As author of several books about child development, I found myself sighing sadly in agreement. I had breathed a similar sad sigh two days earlier, when the Scottish government’s decision to continue national testing of five-year-olds in the three Rs was endorsed by David Reedy, the literacy expert they’d appointed to review the tests. Having specialised in literacy before child development took over my life, I fear that the ‘meta-skills’ our children need are the very ones our education system is now inadvertently beating out of them by a too-early start on the three Rs.
Ability to survive and thrive
That’s not to suggest that literacy and numeracy are unimportant – educational success still depends on them and, despite technological advances, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But success in the workplace – not to mention the ability to survive and thrive whatever the future brings – depends on the development of the ‘natural’ intelligence and skills described on Mr Brodie’s powerpoint slide.
Resilience, adaptability and all the other meta-skills are what’s known as ‘biologically primary knowledge’. This means that the capacity to develop them is embedded in human DNA and – given appropriate nurture and environmental support – they begin to develop naturally during the early years of children’s lives.
Throughout the millennia there have been two key ingredients for healthy child development, especially in the years between birth and seven. They are love and play.
Young children obviously need the love of adults to ensure their material needs are met. But – as is now clear from a mountain of academic literature on the significance of ‘secure attachment’ – loving care is also vital for healthy social and emotional development. The pile of academic literature on the significance of play for physical, emotional, social and cognitive development hasn’t yet achieved mountainous proportions because the science of play is still in its infancy, but it’s growing by the day.
Yet both secure attachment and play are seriously threatened by massive lifestyle changes over the last few decades. Most 21st century children now spend many hours each day in out-of-home care which, due to economic constraints, is of hugely varying quality – and the chopping and changing usually required to cover modern parents’ working patterns seldom ensures the long-term presence of the constant, consistent ‘attachment figures’ small children need. What’s more, in today’s traffic-clogged streets where community engagement is sadly lacking, the active, social, outdoor play enjoyed by earlier generations of children has all but disappeared, especially for the under-sevens.
This is why two grassroots organisations have appeared in Scotland over the last five years:
- the ACE-Aware Nation movement is concerned with the centrality of positive, supportive relationships in all public services, particularly in the early years when ‘adverse childhood experiences’ have a lifelong impact
- Upstart Scotland’s campaign for a relationship-centred, play-based kindergarten stage for children aged three to seven, which aims to reinstate active, outdoor, social play at the heart of early childhood.
The reason I spend such a lot of my time these days banging out blogs about early child development is that Scotland’s politicians (and most of our educational establishment) haven’t yet recognised the extent to which times have changed. They still take it for granted that biologically primary knowledge will just ‘happen’, the way it’s always happened for children in the past – or at least for enough lucky children to keep Scotland’s cultural show on the road.
Daring to venture
The emergence of ACE-Aware Nation and Upstart Scotland (of which I am chair) indicates that the conditions required for healthy development don’t ‘just happen’ any more. Instead, many Scottish children are passed like parcels from one carer to another during their formative years. Play has turned into sedentary, screen-based activity (or adult-supervised clubs and classes) which bears little resemblance to the outdoor, self-directed exploration and experimentation of the past.
The two organisations have a strong mutual regard and Upstart Scotland is grateful to ACE-Aware Nation’s Suzanne Zeedyk for this quotation from the originator of attachment theory, Professor John Bowlby:
Children who feel securely attached can venture off to play – outdoors with their friends – knowing they’ll return to the safe haven of caring, non-judgemental adults. If Scotland wants to rear children fit to thrive in an uncertain future, we urgently need to reform our universal services in early years to provide a 21st century version of ‘love and play’ for every child.
For the under-sevens, everyday opportunities to develop the meta-skills identified at the Skills Policy Conference are far more important than an unnecessarily early start on the three Rs. The Nordic countries have long recognised this and the success of their early years policies is reflected in their domination of international surveys of well-being. Over the last twelve months, China and Singapore have spotted it too and changed their education policies in response. In the USA, the Harvard Centre for the Developing Child constantly emphasises the significance of attachment, while the American Academy of Paediatric Health is pushing ‘The Power of Play’.
It’s time for Scotland to wake up and make sure our children are fit for the future. Whatever it brings.
Featured image by Alan McCredie
David Reedy’s Independent Review of the Scottish National Standardised Assessments at Primary 1 including recommendations for the Scottish Government.
Upstart Scotland’s Response to the Reedy Review